Constitutional challenge targets Gov. Scott's use of blind trust law

May 14, 2014 

A lawsuit filed in the Florida Supreme Court Wednesday raises an election-year constitutional challenge to a 2013 law that allows statewide elected officials to place personal financial assets in qualified blind trusts. At least six news media organizations, including The Associated Press, The Miami Herald and the Florida Times-Union, will file friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the lawsuit.

The action is clearly aimed at Gov. Rick Scott, the first officeholder to take advantage of the blind trust provision, but he's not a named defendant. The lawsuit seeks to prevent Secretary of State Ken Detzner from accepting qualifying papers of any candidate who has placed finances in a blind trust. The lawsuit seeks an emergency ruling because the week-long candidate qualifying period begins on June 16.

The law unanimously passed both houses and the Commission on Ethics approved Scott's blind trust in September 2013.

The lawsuit, filed by constitutional law expert Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte, a former Democratic state legislator, argues that blind trusts are not compatible with the constitutional provision that requires elected officials to make a "full and public" disclosure of their financial interests.

"I'm just startled that no one has questioned the damn thing," D'Alemberte said Wednesday. "People are disregarding a clear constitutional requirement that is a bedrock principle of open government."

The financial disclosure requirement was a personal crusade of the late Gov. Reubin Askew, who campaigned for it and easily won voter approval for it in 1976. Askew died in March, and the named plaintiff in the lawsuit is Jim Apthorp, a Democrat who served as Askew's chief of staff.

D'Alemberte said he expects the First Amendment Foundation, an open government watchdog group, to file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the lawsuit. The foundation is backed by major Florida news organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald.

Asked if Democrat Charlie Crist's campaign was involved in the strategy to file the lawsuit, D'Alemberte said: "Not as far as I'm concerned. I've not talked to anyone in the Crist campaign."

Not a single legislator voted against the blind trust law. The language is in a broader ethics bill (SB 2) that was a high priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and passed in the early days of the 2013 session.

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